In May at the French Open, Serena Williams appeared like a vision of female empowerment and black pride when she hit the court in an figure-hugging jumpsuit designed by Nike. This was her triumphant return from maternity leave.
Wearing the catsuit was “my way of being a superhero,” Williams said at the time. It made her feel like a “warrior.”
But on Friday, reports surfaced that outfits like Williams’s catsuit won’t be allowed on the famed clay courts at Roland-Garros in the future. The French Open will be instituting a new dress code for next year’s tournament, French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli said in an interview with Tennis magazine.
Citing Williams’s all-black catsuit, he said: “It will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.”
Although Williams has already squashed the outcry over Giudicelli’s statements, saying “everything’s fine” and that the Grand Slam has a “right” to make its own rules, it still seems like she is being unfairly targeted. Giudicelli’s comments received justified backlash on social media, and many sprung to the athlete’s defense.
Nike, the creator of the catsuit, defended the tennis champion with a powerful statement about her: “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers. #justdoit.”
Williams consistently faces unjust scrutiny as the best player in a predominantly white sport.
“I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far,” Giudicelli said, as if the simple act of Williams daring to exist in a curvy black feminine body was an intentional act of defiance.
The suit was intended to do more than make Williams look and feel fierce. After she gave birth to her daughter, Olympia, in September, doctors found a large hematoma — a pool of clotted blood — had flooded her abdomen. The entire ordeal was life-threatening. The power suit was meant to help her manage the blood clots.
“I don’t know how many I have had in the past 12 months,” Williams said after donning her catsuit. “It definitely has little functionality to it.”
Serena Williams beat death to compete. She has won the French Open three times and has a total of 23 Grand Slam titles. In the large scheme of things, she is the face of the game. This is what makes Giudicelli’s comments seem wildly inappropriate and beyond disrespectful.
One cannot help but wonder why her competitors’ clothing choices have never been chastised in the way that her outfits have been dissected. If Giudicelli had other examples, why didn’t he name them? Should he really be picking apart women’s apparel — and therefore their bodies — at all?
Williams’s competitors body types are different. (Maria Sharapova once compared her “small” size to Serena’s “thick arms and thick legs.”) Time and time again, Williams’s muscles have been described as “manly” and so much of that is linked to the anti-blackness and misogynoir assigned to her body.
Giudicelli’s words reminded me of just how politicized black women’s bodies will always be. Especially Serena Williams’s.
Since she first stepped into the spotlight in the late ’90s, I’ve been enamored by Williams. But as she continued her reign as one of the most unbeatable tennis players, she has also received never-ending scrutiny, especially when it comes to her appearance.
In her early days, she stood out for wearing box braids. The hairstyle was distinct because no one else — save for her sister, Venus — wore their hair in that fashion on the world’s most famous tennis courts. I was the only black girl in my school, and Serena and I had identical hairstyles. In some ways, it was like we were fighting the same fight.
It was bold and unique to see such an unapologetically black hairstyle on mainstream TV, especially on a tennis court. To this day, everything about the representation of Williams’s image resonates with me: She has darker skin. So do I. She must navigate the complicated experience of being a black woman. So do I. As a black woman, I know that even the slightest reaction is coded alongside our bodies as aggressive, angry and dangerous.
So, on Saturday morning, when Williams gently responded to the controversy over Guidecelli’s comments with a lighthearted joke, I couldn’t help but wonder if she felt pressured to be the bigger person since she is still a #BlackWomanAtWork.
“I think that obviously, the Grand Slams have a right to do what they want to do,” Williams said ahead of the U.S. Open, which begins Monday. “I feel like if and when, or if they know that some things are for health reasons, then there’s no way that they wouldn’t be okay with it. So I think it’s fine. The president of the French Federation, he’s been really amazing. He’s been so easy to talk to. My whole team is basically French, so, yeah, we have a wonderful relationship.”
Still, her reaction also gives me hope: Nothing, not even constant scrutiny, can begin to impact her impeccable record. As a superior athlete and black woman, Williams has consistently been scrutinized for her hard-earned strength and ability. But she takes it all in stride. Regardless of the noise, she’s confident in herself, knowing that she’s unbeatable.